sermon-great-fire-in-boston-1760Rev. Jonathan Mayhew (1720-66) was a Massachusetts clergyman.
He graduated with honors from Harvard in 1744 and began pastoring the West Church
(Boston) in 1747. He preached what he considered to be a rational and practical
Christianity based on the Scriptures. Mayhew was a true Puritan and staunchly
defended civil liberty; he published many sermons related to the preservations
of those liberties, including one immediately following the repeal of the Stamp
Act entitled The Snare Broken (1766). Highly thought of by many patriots,
including John Adams, who credited Rev. Mayhew with being one of the two most
influential individuals in preparing Americans for their fight for independence.
In this sermon, Mayhew exhorts his congregation after the Great Fire in Boston
(March 20, 1760), providing them with a Biblical perspective of disasters and
encouraging them to cultivate a humble and repentant heart before God. Rev.
Mayhew’s sermon is an unambiguous example of how early American pastors used
the events of their day to impart truth and promote the development of a Christian
worldview within their flocks.


God’s Hand and Providence to be Religiously Acknowledged
in Public Calamities

A Sermon Occasioned by the Great Fire in Boston, New-England

Thursday March 20, 1760

And preached on the Lord’s Day following.

By Jonathan Mayhew, D.D. Pastor of the West-Church in Boston.

Amos 3:6
Shall there be evil in a city, and the Lord hath not done it?

What devastation have we lately seen made in a few hours! How many houses and
other buildings suddenly consumed! How much wealth destroyed! How many unhappy
families, rich and poor together, left destitute of any habitation, except those
which either private friendship or public charity supplied! What distress in
every face; some mourning their own unhappy lot, others tenderly sympathizing
with them; and none knowing when or where the wide desolation would terminate!

“Affliction cometh not forth of the dust, neither doth trouble spring out
of the ground;” to be sure, not such trouble and affliction as this, a calamity,
so great and extensive! This is a visitation of providence, which demands a
serious and religious consideration. And it is with a view to lead you into
some proper reflections on this melancholy occasion that I have chosen the words
read for the subject of my discourse at this time: “Shall there be evil in a
city,” faith the prophet, “and the Lord hath not done it?”

It is to be observed, that although these words bear the form of a question,
the design of them is strongly to assert, that there is no evil in a city, which
the Lord hath not done. Interrogatory forms of expression are often to be thus
understood; I mean, as the most peremptory, and animated kind of affirmations.
Thus, for example, when it is demanded – “Can a man take fire in his bosom,
and his clothes not be burnt?” [Prov. 6:27] everyone understands this, as equivalent
to asserting the impossibility hereof in the strongest terms. So, when it is
asked, “Can a man be profitable unto God? – or is it gain to him, that
thou maketh thy ways perfect? Will he reprove thee for fear of thee?” [Job 22:2-4]
a peremptory denial of these several things is universally understood by those
questions. As if it had been said, verily, a man cannot be profitable unto God!
&c. and when, after a representation of the great wickedness and depravity of
the Jewish nation, it is immediately subjoined, “Shall I not visit for these
things?” saith the Lord: “Shall not my soul be avenged on such a nation as this?”
[Jer. 5:29] It is equivalent to a positive denunciation of the divine vengeance
against that sinful people: and even more expressive, than if it had been said
directly – I will visit for these things: My soul shall be avenged on such a nation
as this. This would have been comparatively a cold, unanimated way of speaking;
far less adapted to make an impression on the reader of hearer, than the other.

The manner of expression in the text is obviously the same with that, in the
passages quoted above; being more forcible than a simple affirmation would have
been, without some note of asseveration preceding. It is as if it had been said,
verily, or, surely, there is no evil in a city, and the Lord hath not done it.

However, to prevent a dangerous error here, it must be particularly remembered
that by “evil” in the text, is not meant moral evil, or sin; but only natural,
viz, pain, affliction and calamity. It cannot be supposed, that the prophet
intended to attribute any other evil to God, as the author of it, besides the
latter. “Far be it from God, that he should do wickedly; and from the Almighty,
that he should pervert judgment!” Nor can the sinful and evil actions of men,
properly be attributed to him; or to any over-ruling providence of his, considered
as their impulsive cause, or as making them become necessary. “Let no man say
[therefore] when he is tempted, I am tempted of God: for God cannot be tempted
with evil, neither tempteth he any man. But every man is tempted, when he is
drawn away of his own lust, and enticed. Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth
forth sin.” [James 1:13-15] This is the account which the apostle gives of the
origin of sin, or moral evil: beyond which, if we pretend to go, in the way
of speculation and refinement; we shall probably, at best, only amuser ourselves,
and perhaps not be innocent. If God is not properly said, even to “tempt” men
to do evil; much less can it be truly said, that he compels them to do it, by
any secret energy, or operation, of his. We are doubtless, therefore, to understand
the prophet as speaking here, only of natural evil, in contradistinction from
moral: so that it will amount to this, that God is the author of all those calamities
and sufferings, which at any time befall a city, or community. They are not
to be looked on as the effects of chance, or accident; which are but empty names;
but as proceeding ultimately from him, the supreme governor of the world; and
this, even though they are more immediately and visibly owing to the folly,
or vice and wickedness, of men.

To say, in this sense, that there is no evil in a city, which the Lord hath
not done, is indeed no more, in effect, than to assert the universal government
and providence of God; which, I suppose, we all believe, whatever difficulties
may attend our speculations on the subject. If God is the supreme ruler of the
world, and exerciseth such a universal government over it, as the scriptures
every where suppose and teach, and as nothing but folly or impiety can deny;
he must, in some sense, either mediately or immediately, be the author of whatever
events come to pass in it. We cannot suppose that there are any evils, or calamities,
whether public or private, in the production whereof he has no concern, and
which he did not design, with out a partial denial of his dominion and providence.
For if any events come to pass, contrary to, or beside his design, or without,
and independently of him; his dominion is not an universal dominion, nor does
his kingdom rule over all, as the scriptures assert. These events, if any such
there are, are plainly exceptions to the universality of his government; being
according to the supposition itself, such as were neither done, nor ordered
by him. But surely no man but an atheist, or at least one who disbelieves the
Holy Scriptures, can think there are really any such events. It is not less
a dictate of reason, than it is a doctrine of scripture, that as all things
have one common Creator, they are all subject to one common Lord, and under
one supreme administration; so that nothing does, or can come to pass, but in
conformity to his will, either positive or permissive. The denial of which must
terminate, not merely in the denial of a universal superintending providence,
but of one or other of God’s attributes; either his omniscience, or his omnipotence,
if not of both.

Some public calamities are indeed, as was intimated above, more immediately
and visibly the Lord’s doings than others. He is, however, to be acknowledged
as the author of them all in general; not excepting those which are brought
upon us by the instrumentality of subordinate agents. These are all subject
to his dominion and control, and dependent upon him in their various operations;
at least so far that they can do us no harm, but by his will and consent.

It may be thought indeed by some, that God is more properly said only to permit,
than to be himself the author of those evils, whether public or private, which
are brought upon us immediately by inferior agents; or through the wicked devices
and practices of men. It is not worthwhile to dispute this point, which is rather
a question of words and names, than of things. For it must be observed, that
when the word permission is used in this case, it implies in it a will and design,
that the things permitted should actually come to pass. When God is said to
permit any thing, the meaning hereof is not merely this, that he does not prevent
it; for in this sense, we also might be said to permit whatever happens throughout
the universe, though it were not in our power to prevent it: the impropriety
of which way of speaking, would be obvious to all. When we speak of God’s permitting
things, we mean that he does so, knowingly and voluntarily, having at the same
time power to prevent them, if he pleased. He might doubtless, if he pleased,
prevent them by an immediate interposition; or he might have originally predisposed
and ordered things otherwise, and in such a manner, that these particular events
should never have come to pass. For which reason, God’s permitting them seems
to amount to a positive will, or determination, that they should come to pass;
or at least, not differ very materially herefrom.

But not to enter any niceties upon a subject, so intricate in its nature; I
shall content myself with observing here, that, in the language of scripture,
God is not said to permit, but to do, those things in general, which come to
pass under his government, evil as well as good. “I am the Lord, saith he, and
there is none else: I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and
create evil; I the Lord do all these things.” [Isai. 45:6-7] The scriptures
do not speak of God as an unconcerned, or inactive spectator, of any events;
but as the author of them; and particularly the author of all the calamities
which befall mankind. Only we are to take heed, that we do not so conceive of
his over-ruling providence, as to make him the author, or approver, of men’s
sinful actions. We are to ascribe to him the most universal dominion and agency,
consistent with this necessary caution, or limitation. I say, consistent with
this; lest we should be chargeable with blaspheming God, under the show and
appearance of doing honor to him. And some there are, who could not perhaps
easily acquit themselves of this charge, in respect of the manner in which they
express themselves on the subject of God’s providence and decrees.

But to wave everything of a controversial nature, for which this is not, to
be sure, a proper occasion; let me here just mention a few of those many public
calamities, which God brings upon mankind from age to age. For the ways are
numerous, in which he manifests his righteous displeasure against sinful nations;
and many the evils which he brings on wicked cities and communities, from one
generation to another. He sitteth upon the circuit of the earth; and all nations
are before him less than nothing and vanity. All things are subject to his control;
and he makes use of them in various ways, to accomplish the designs of his providence.
Fire and hail, snow and vapor, and stormy winds, fulfill his pleasure: and the
stars in their courses, at his command, fight against his enemies.

God sometimes lays cities desolate by the sword of their enemies. Numberless
instances hereof are particularly recorded in sacred story. And this is one
of the ways, in which God has often threatened to chastise a wicked and rebellious
people. This threatening was executed in a most terrible manner, even on his
chosen people Israel, after they had filled up the measure of their iniquities:
when Jerusalem was turned into an heap of ruins by the Romans, whom he armed
and sent against it.

At other times God manifests his righteous displeasure against wicked cities
and countries, by famine. Thus he reminds his people Israel, for their warning,
of what he had formerly done against them in this way; and reproves them for
their stubbornness under his afflicting hand. “I have given you cleanness of
teeth in all your cities, and want of bread – I have witholden the rain from you,
when there were yet three months to the harvest: and I caused it to rain on
one city, and caused it not to rain on another city – I have smitten you with
blasting and mildew. When your gardens and vineyards, and your fig-trees, and
olive-trees increased, the palmer-worm devoured them: yet ye have not returned
unto me, saith the Lord” [Amos 4].

The pestilence is another of those terrible judgments, by which God sometimes
lays cities and countries desolate. The Israelites were often punished for their
sins in this way, as they had been before threatned. “I have sent amongst you
the pestilence, saith God to them, ‘ after the manner of Egypt – and have made
the stink of your camps to come up unto your nostrils: yet have ye not returned
unto me.”

Many cities have been destroyed by terrible earthquakes; some entirely; and
others so far, as to be lasting monuments of God’s righteous displeasure.

Omitting innumerable other calamities and judgments, by which God makes know
his wrath against wicked cities; I shall here only subjoin that of desolating
fire. Thus God threatened the king of Babylon of old. “Behold, I am against
thee, O thou most proud, saith the Lord God of hosts: for thy day is come, and
the time that I will visit the—and I will kindle a fire in his cities,
and it shall devour round about him [Jer. 50:31-32].” How many cities have been
thus laid in ruins? Some by fire from heaven, or mighty tempests of thunder
and lightning, as Sodom and Gomorrah: Of which cities it is said, that they
are “set forth for an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire; called
eternal, because those cities were never rebuilt, but remained to all generations
the monuments of God’s wrath. But those fires by which God destroys, or sorely
chastises, proud and wicked cities, are not always thus kindled from heaven,
as it were immediately by the breath of God. They are more frequently lighted
up by other means; either by treacherous intestine enemies with design, or accidentally
by other persons. But by whatever means it comes to pass, it is not done but
by the will and appointment of God, who over-rules all these events, and has,
doubtless, important ends to accomplish by them. 1

Alas! We need not go to distant countries for examples of calamities of this
kind. This capital of the province has several times suffered severely by means
of fire: particularly about fifty years ago, when a considerable part of the
town was reduced to ruins. 2
Since which there
have been divers destructive fires in the town, though all of them far less
extensive and ruinous. All of them, I mean, excepting that of the last week,
which was doubtless by far the most terrible visitation of the kind, that ever
it experienced; whether we consider the number of the buildings, the value of
the effects consumed, or the multitude of people reduced to want and misery
hereby. Some persons of easy, comfortable fortunes, are brought at once into
a state of dependence but little better than that of beggary: some, of large
and affluent ones, have lost the greater part of what they possessed: whilst
others of the poorer sort have lost all; and are, for the present, deprived
of all means of getting a subsistence; so that they must either perish, or become
a public charge.

Some circumstances preceding and attending this great disaster, are not unworthy
of our particular notice. Fires have been more frequent in the town of late,
than perhaps they have ever been in times past. It is but three or four months
since a considerable fire happened, where by many persons were great sufferers.
3
A few
weeks after this, another fire broke out; by which, though not so many dwelling
houses were consumed, yet perhaps as much damage was sustained. 4

And for three days successively before this last, and most terrible conflagration
happened, the town was alarmed by fire. The first of these fires broke out at
a very small distance from this place (on Monday, March 17th.); it got to a
great head, and threatened to lay waste this part of the town, together with
this house of prayer, the house of God, wherein we are now assembled; on which
the fire had actually taken hold. But, through the good providence of God, this
very dangerous flame was happily extinguished, without the entire consumption
of any one dwelling house: and we are again permitted, contrary to the expectation
of many, to assemble ourselves for the worship of God, as usual, in this place.
So that we have, in this respect, cause to sing of mercy, while, in others,
we sing of judgment.

The alarm on the next day, viz. on Tuesday, was very great, and not without
sufficient reason: when, by some means, the Laboratory of the royal train of
artillery here took fire, and was blown up; when the adjoining buildings took
the fire also, which was in imminent danger of being communicated to the king’s
stores, in which, it is said, a large quantity of powder, charged shells, &c.
were deposited. The apprehension of the fire’s making its way to these stores,
and of the fatal consequences that might thence ensue, put the town into a general
consternation. It was some time before people thought it prudent, or advisable,
to approach the fire, so as to use any methods to extinguish it. But on further
information, and a more exact knowledge of the situation and circumstances of
things, they applied themselves to the business with great alertness and resolution.
And thus this fire was extinguished, when it had done only a small part of the
damage that was apprehended from it; though in itself that was not inconsiderable.

The day following
(Wednesday the 19th), different parts of the town, at different times,
were alarmed with the cry of fire. It did not, however, then get to a considerable
head any where, so as to become dangerous: only as there is always some danger
from a fire, though but small, in such a town as this; especially in such a
dry and windy time as it was then.

By these fires was ushered in, that far greater, and more fatal one, which
has left so considerable a part of the town in desolation and ruin (It was discovered
between one and two o’clock on Thursday morning, the 20th.). And there is one
thing that deserves to be particularly mentioned with reference hereto; as it
may tend to lead us into a proper consideration of the providence of God in
this affair. When this fire broke out, and for some time before, it was almost
calm. And had it continued so, the fire might probably have been extinguished
in a short time, before it had done much damage; considering the remarkable
resolution and dexterity of many people amongst us on such occasions. But it
seems that God, who had spared us before beyond our hopes, was now determined
to let loose his wrath upon us; to “rebuke us in his anger, and chasten us in
his hot displeasure.” In order to the accomplishing of which design, soon after
the fire broke out, he caused his wind to blow; and suddenly raised it to such
a height, that all endeavors to put a stop to the raging flames, were ineffectual:
though there seems to have been no want, either of any pains or prudence, which
could be expected at such a time. The Lord had purposed, and who should disannul
it? His hand was stretched out, and who should turn it back [Isai. 14:27]. “When
he giveth quietness, who then can make trouble? And when he hideth his face,
who then can behold him? Whether it be done against a nation, or against a man
only [Job 34:29].” It had been a dry season for some time; unusually so for
the time of the year. The houses, and other things were as fuel prepared for
the fire to feed on: and the flames were suddenly spread, and propagated to
distant places. So that, in the space of a few hours, the fire swept all before
it in the direction of the wind; spreading wider and wider from the place where
it began, till it reached the water. Nor did it stop even there, without the
destruction of the wharfs, with several vessels lying at them, and the imminent
danger of many others. 5
We may now, with sufficient propriety, adopt the words of the
psalmist, and apply them to our own calamitous circumstances, “Come, behold
the works of the Lord, what desolation he hath made in the earth.” So melancholy
a scene, occasioned by fire, was, to be sure, never beheld before in America;
at least not in the British dominions. And when I add, God grant that the like
may never be beheld again, I am sure you will all say, Amen!

In short, this must needs be considered, not only as a very great, but public
calamity. It will be many years before this town, long burdened with so great,
not to say, disproportionate, a share of the public expenses, will recover itself
from the terrible blow. Nor will this metropolis only be affected and prejudiced
hereby. The whole province will feel it. For such are the dependencies and connections
in civil society, regularly constituted. That one part of a community cannot
be much hurt, without detriment to the rest: as in the human body, if one member
suffer, all the other members suffer with it. Especially, if the HEAD be sick,
or maimed, the whole body will soon feel the effects hereof, and partake of
its sufferings And whatever some weak, or envious persons may imagine, the good
of the province in general, is very closely connected with the welfare, and
flourishing condition of this CAPITAL: so that if it should fall into decay
and ruin, the most remote parts of the country would very soon feel the bad
effects of it.

At whatever time this disaster had befallen us, it would have been a very great
one: but it is particularly so at present, when both the town and country are
so much exhausted by public taxes, especially the former: when we have such
a load of debt lying upon us; a load still increasing, instead of lessening;
and when the season of the year is just coming on, for prosecuting our military
designs and operations. This calamity could not well have befallen us at any
time, or conjuncture, wherein we should have been less able to bear up under
it, and surmount the difficulties occasioned by it. But without any reference
to these peculiar circumstances, which enhance the misfortune, the loss or damage,
considered in so short a time as that since the calamity befell us. 6

It highly concerns us rightly to improve this visititation of providence, and
to conduct ourselves properly under it. This will be, not only our wisdom, but
our greatest security against public calamities and disasters for the future,
whether of this, or any other kind. We should neither despise the chastening
of the Lord, nor faint when we are rebuked of him.

Now, this being truly a public, as well as a great calamity, I shall, in the
first place, make some reflections upon it, which concern us all in common.
Secondly, I shall direct my discourse particularly to those amongst us, who
have been more immediate sufferers therein. An thirdly, to those, whose dwellings
and substance have been preserved; and who are not directly involved in this
calamity.

First, it becomes us all in general, seriously to regard the hand and providence
of God in this evil that has befallen us. This evil, this great evil, has not
surely come upon us, but by his appointment, and according to his sovereign
pleasure. Various conjectures have been made, and rumors spread abroad, concerning
the particular means, by which this raging and destructive fire was first kindled
up. Which of them is right, or whether either of them be so or not, I am not
able to tell: nor is this very material to my present design. By whatever means
this calamitous event has come to pass, we are to look still higher; to the
great Author and disposer of all things: for the lord himself hath done it.
We ought ultimately to regard him therein, if there be any such thing as a providence
superintending human affairs. “Except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh
in vain: it is vain for us to rise up early, or sit up late, to eat the bread
of sorrows.” And the first thing requisite, in order to a due improvement of
this visitation, is a fixed, firm persuasion, that God’s hand and counsel determined
it to be done; or that it is really a visitation from him. We cannot proceed
a step, in the way of religious reflection upon it, unless we lay this down
first as a certain principle.

We ought, in the next place, to acknowledge the justice and righteousness of
God, in bringing this sore calamity upon us: for the Lord is righteous in all
his ways, and holy in all his works. Justice and judgment are the habitation
of his throne, not only when the light of his countenance is lifted up, and
shines upon us in our prosperity; but also when clouds and darkness are round
about him, and we are overwhelmed with adversity. God does not afflict willingly,
or grieve the children of men, even when thy have incurred his just displeasure:
much less does he wantonly punish the innocent. We may assure ourselves, it
is not without just and sufficient provocation, that he has appeared thus against
us. It becomes us therefore to be humble and submissive under his chastening
hand; under his great frown of his providence. For “wherefore should a living
man complain, a man for the punishment of his sins!”

This is a season, wherein it doubtless becomes us all seriously to examine
our ways, in order to discover, as far as may be, what are the special grounds
and reasons of God’s displeasure against us, and of his contending with us in
so terrible a manner. Indeed this general consideration, that we are sinful
creatures in common with the rest of mankind, were plainly sufficient to justify
God’s dealings with us, even though this calamity had been far greater than
it is. However, the holy scriptures give us reason to think, that God seldom,
or never, brings very great and public calamities upon a community, unless it
is for sins of a very heinous and provoking nature. In which respect, there
seems to be a wide and material difference between the conduct of providence
towards nations, or communities, and towards particular persons. For with regard
to the latter, this certainly will not hold true; the best men being often the
greatest sufferers in this world. “All things come alike to all; and there is
one event to the righteous and to the wicked,” if we speak with reference to
individuals, in this present state: so that “no man knoweth either love or hatred
from all that is before him;” either by the prosperity he enjoys, or the adversity
which he suffers. Which seems not applicable to communities; at least, not easily
reconcilable with the scripture account of God’s conduct towards them, to say
nothing of what we are taught by experience.

I pretend not to penetrate so far into the views and designs of providence,
as to be able particularly and positively to determine, for what reasons it
is that God has thus sorely chastised us. “His judgments are a great deep.”
We may, however, conclude in general, that whatever sins are most prevalent
amongst us, these are sins which have contributed most to bring this great calamity
upon us. In going thus far, there is no presumption. No particular sins, or
sinners, are indeed to be excluded, as not contributing to bring calamities
upon a people, whenever God sends them. However, I suppose we are to look for
the primary, or chief cause of common calamities, not in a comparatively small
number of particular person, however impious or profligate; but in the main
body of a people. Common judgments must ordinarily be supposed to have some
common cause.

And are there not some sins, with which we are very generally chargeable? If
any one swears, whoremongers, drunkards, adulterers, thieves or liars, he would
doubtless himself deserve no better a character than that of a false accuser,
and shameless calumniator. There, are indeed, many such sinners amongst us;
but it is to be hoped their number is small, in comparison of those who are
guiltless of any of these crimes. But suppose any one should say, that pride
was a sin very generally prevalent amongst us, would he merit the character
of a false accuser? If another were to assert, that we were generally addicted
to luxury, would he be a calumniator? If a third were to tax us with being generally
selfish, and greedy of gain, without a due and proportionate regard to the welfare
of the public, or of our neighbor; could we truly deny the charge? If a fourth
were to accuse us of formality in our religion, of laying too great stress on
some things of little or no importance, and comparatively neglecting the weightier
matters of the law and gospel, could we justly deny this to be our character?
I do not myself bring these general accusations; but it would not be amiss for
us seriously to consider, how far they might be just. If there be a real and
sufficient foundation for them, we need not be at any loss for such causes of
God’s displeasure, as are common to us.

Nor would it be improper for us, on this occasion, to inquire, whether we have
been duly thankful to God for the signal mercies and deliverances which he hath
vouchsafed to us in times past. He has shown great favor and kindness to us
at sundry times, and in divers manners. Though he has often contended with us
by fire heretofore; yet how often have very threatening fires been seasonably
extinguished; and not permitted to prevail against us. Have we generally been
thankful, properly thankful, for these favorable appearances of providence for
us, in the times of danger and fear? If not, our ingratitude in this respect,
may be supposed one special reason of the late terrible calamity. God’s design
may be, to make us more sensible of former mercies, by the greatness of the
evil he has now brought upon us.

God has repeatedly visited us with earthquakes, the most alarming in their
nature of any of his providential dispensations. However his goodness and compassion
have still spared us in these times of our distress, when we had reason to apprehend
the most awful and fatal effects of these visitations; particularly of one of
them, a few years since: though about the same time, the most amazing desolations
were wrought by earthquakes in some other parts of the world. Have we taken
proper notice of his dealings with us in this respect? If not, this may be another
reason of the great calamity now brought upon us.

Moreover: our enemies, during the late and present war, have been forming dangerous
designs against us, even against this metropolis. But God has repeatedly blasted
their designs; and has lately given us the most remarkable success against them:
so that our once just apprehensions from them, are vanished away; and even turned
into triumph over them. Have we been duly thankful for these deliverances and
mercies? If not, this may be one cause, why he has destroyed by fire, what he
would not permit the enemy to destroy.

Perhaps we have rejoiced with an unchristian, and inhuman joy, in the distresses
and calamities lately brought upon our enemies; when great part of their country
was ravaged, their villages burnt, their capital city besieged, and partly consumed
by fire. If we have rejoiced in their misery with an unrelenting, savage temper
of mind, God may have been hereby provoked to bring this great evil upon us;
which, in its kind, bears some resemblance to what they have suffered. Or if
we have not rejoiced in the misery of our enemies with an unchristian, barbarous
joy, perhaps we have triumphed over them with unchristian pride; and been vainly
elated with the successes God has given us, instead of being humbly thankful
to him therefore. And if this be the case, God doubtless designed to check our
pride by this visitation, and make us think more soberly of ourselves.

But if there are no particular sins, with which we are chargeable in common;
yet are we not all in general chargeable with some? Some of us with one vice,
or misdemeanor, and some with another? If so, this is a sufficient ground for
our being thus chastised by a common calamity. And we were doubtless ripe for
some signal punishment from the hand of providence, when this great evil came
upon us. Many atrocious sins, and flagrant abominations, are found in the midst
of us. To what an amazing pitch of wickedness and impudence, some persons amongst
us were arrived, is evident even from some transactions at the time of the late
terrible fire. For, instead of being affected with so melancholy a providence,
and charitably assisting people in saving their effects, some there were, so
hardened and shameless, as to take the opportunity of the general confusion,
to steal and rife their neighbor’s goods! One would hardly have thought it possible
for people to be so wicked, impious and abandoned. I hope, indeed, there were
not many such; and that there were not born and educated amongst us, though
I am not certain. But wherever they were born and bred, they are certainly a
disgrace, not only to their own country, gut to the world itself, and to human
nature.

It does not become us, even the best of us, on such an occasion as this, to
justify or excuse ourselves; or to attribute this public calamity wholly to
the sins of others. Probably none of us can entirely acquit ourselves of having
contributed to it, by our own particular miscarriages. And it highly concerns
us all, seriously to reflect upon the righteous hand of God.

We may all learn some very useful and important lessons from this visitation,
if we duly attend to it. We are hereby more particularly reminded of the vanity
of worldly riches, and the folly of depending on, or placing our chief happiness
in them. How suddenly do they take to themselves wings, and fly away, as an
eagle towards heaven, leaving the possessors of them destitute, not only of
superfluous wealth, but even of those things which are needful for the body!
This is one of those dispensations of providence, which give a particular force
and energy to those words of the apostle – “Charge them that are rich, that they
trust not in uncertain riches, but in the living God, who giveth us richly all
things to enjoy”: and also to that more general admonition of our Savior himself – “Lay
not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust do corrupt,
and where thieves break through and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasure
in heaven,” &c.

To finish these general reflections; we are all in common admonished by this
visitation of providence, to consider and amend our ways. Doubtless the end
of our being thus visited and chastised, is our reformation. Whatever serious
reflections we may at present make upon this calamitous event; yet the great
design of it will not be answered upon us, if we continue unreformed. This is
often the case. Pharaoh and his people were in some measure humbled, at the
time when the plagues were upon them. But they soon forgot the judgments of
heaven; and became more hardened afterwards. This was sometimes the case also
with the people of Israel. “Thou hast stricken them,” says the prophet, “but
they have not grieved; thou hast consumed them, but they have refused to receive
correction. They have made their faces harder than a rock, they have refused
to return.” If we are not reclaimed from our sins and vices by this calamity,
we have reason to apprehend greater and heavier ones. God’s anger will not be
turned away; but his hand will still be stretched out against us. O let us not,
by our impenitence and hardness of heart under this correction, provoke God
to smite us with greater severity; lest, perhaps, we perish under his hand,
while there is none to deliver! But, on the other hand, if we duly lay to heart
this sore chastisement, and return to God, he will doubtless return unto the
“Lord: for he hath torn, and he will heal us; he hath smitten, and he will bind
us up.” Though he hath visited our transgressions with a rod, and our iniquities
with stripes; yet his loving kindness will he not utterly take from us; nor
suffer his faithfulness to fail.

But I was in next place, secondly, to direct my discourse particularly to those
amongst us, who have been the more immediate sufferers in this common calamity.
My brethren, I trust we all in general heartily sympathize with you, and bear
a part in your affliction. But if it concerns us all in common, seriously to
consider the hand of God in this visitation, allow me to remind you, that it
more especially concerns you to do so, on whom this great calamity, by his appointment,
has more immediately fallen. To us, this providence more than whispers; to you
it speaks still louder, even in thunder. I would, however, be very far from
insinuation, that the unhappy persons who are the immediate subjects of this
calamity, are in general more guilty in the sight of God than other. This would
be at once uncharitable in itself, and a plain violation of a rule, or maxim,
which our Savior laid down on an occasion not altogether unlike to the present.
But still you must acknowledge that although the call and admonition of providence
in this visitation, be to all of us in common; yet to you it is more direct
and immediate, as well as louder. You are especially admonished to examine your
ways, in this day of visitation and trial. And if you should disregard this
providence, you would doubtless be more inexcusable than others.

It becomes you to bear your losses, however great, with patience, and humble
resignation to the will of God: for he it is, you will remember, that has brought
this evil upon you. Nor has he taken any thing from you, which he did not first
give to you. All that is in the heaven and in the earth, is his: both riches
and honor are of him [I Chron. 29:11-12]. And you are sensible that all his
worldly and temporal gifts, are gifts only during his good pleasure: not absolute,
perpetual grants; but such as he has an indisputable right to recall, at whatever
time, and in whatever manner, he sees fit. You have therefore no reasonable
ground of complaint; but ought meekly to acquiesce in what he hath done. It
were not amiss for you on this occasion, to reflect on the much greater losses
and sufferings of Job; and on the manner in which he conducted himself under
them. He “fell down upon the ground, and worshipped, and said, naked came I
out of my mothers womb; and naked shall I return thither: the Lord gave, and
the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord. In all which Job
sinned not, nor charged God foolishly” [Job 1].

God has doubtless wise and holy, and even gracious ends, to answer by visiting
you in this manner. The visitation is particularly calculated to wean your affections
from this evil world; and excite you to seek, with greater diligence, the true
spiritual riches. Perhaps your hearts have been heretofore too much set upon
the world; and those riches which will not “profit in the day of wrath.” If
this be the case, God hath shown you your error by this visitation of his providence;
and calls upon you hereby, for the future to set your affections only on those
things that are above, where Jesus Christ sitteth at his right hand. It will
be happy for you, if you make so reasonable and wise improvement of your worldly
losses; they will then be the greatest gain to you in the end. Any accession
to, or increase of your virtues, is of far more benefit and importance to you,
than thousands of silver or of gold would be, or all worldly riches. These are
corruptible and transitory: but that is a treasure that fadeth not away, incorruptible
and eternal. And a good man, in the language of the apostle, equally bold and
beautiful, “having nothing, possesseth all things!”

Those whose habitations and wealth have been consumed by this desolating fire,
have still great cause of thankfulness, that their lives have been preserved.
“The life is more than meat, and the body than raiment.” Considering the time
when this fire broke out, being the dead of the night, when people were in their
beds, and some of them on beds of sickness; considering the violence of the
wind, and the rapidity with which the flames spread, and caught from place to
place; the wide extent of them, and the general confusion and consternation
which they occasioned; considering these things, I say, it would not have been
strange, if many persons had perished together with their substance, and mixed
their own ashes with that of their dwellings. But no life was lost. In this
respect, God remembered mercy in the midst of judgment; which demands our grateful
acknowledgements; and particularly the thanks of those, who were in danger of
being consumed in their dwellings, as many of the unhappy sufferers were.

Besides: I take it for granted, that few. Or none of you, my brethren and usual
hearers, have lost all your worldly substance, as some others are said to have
done. Let me therefore exhort you to be thankful to God for what he has left
you still possessed of; especially if that be sufficient for you to subsist
comfortably upon, in the way of honest industry. Though you ought not to despise
the chastening of the Lord in the losses you have sustained; yet it becomes
you to acknowledge his goodness in what is left you. It is not a great deal
that is necessary to the ends of life: virtue, and moderate desires, are satisfied
with little; and having food and raiment, you ought to be therewith content.
We brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out
of it, how much forever we possess: though if we could, it would be of no advantage
to us. In heaven we should not need, but despise and neglect it; and in hell
it would not alleviate our torments.

But if any of you should have lost all your worldly substance by this calamity,
you ought not, however, to despond under this trial, or to saint, being thus
rebuked of the Lord; but still to place your hope and trust in him, who heareth
the young ravens when they cry. “O fear the Lord, ye his saints; for there is
no want to them that fear him. The young lions do lack, and suffer hunger; but
they that seek the Lord shall not want any good thing [Psalm 34:9-10].” I reminded
you above of the sufferings and patience of Job; let me now remind you of the
“end of the Lord” with respect to him; “that the Lord is very pitiful, and of
tender mercy [James 5:11].” That good man saw at length a happy issue of his
troubles. For “the Lord blessed the latter end of Job more than the beginning
[Job 42:12].” You may from hence take some encouragement: God is able to make
all things abound to you. And it is a circumstance not unworthy to remind you
of, for your consolation, that you live in a country, at least in a town, wherein
there is a general disposition in the people to afford necessary relief to the
poor and afflicted: so that you have no reason to be under any anxiety of mind
respecting a livelihood; especially if you enjoy bodily health and strength,
with ability to exercise some lawful calling. But whatever be your condition
in this world, godliness with contentment will be, not only your duty, but your
grateful gain. You should endeavor to be prepared for whatever circumstances
God shall order for you; and to this end, beseech him to give you the temper
of the holy apostle, who said, “I have learned in whatsoever state I am, therewith
to be content: I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound; every
where, and in all things I am instructed, both to be full and to be hungry,
both to abound and to suffer need [Phil. 4:11-12].” Even the Son of man had
not where to lay his head, though the foxes have holes, and the birds of the
air have nests. – And if the same mind be in you, which was in Christ Jesus, you
will bear the extremist poverty without repining. Lest therefore you should
be weary or faint in your minds, consider him, how “though he were rich, yet
for your sake became poor:” learn of him to be truly “meek and lowly in heart;
and whatever be your outward condition, you will then “find rest unto your souls;
such rest as the greatest worldly prosperity cannot give!

Thirdly: let me now turn my discourse to those, whose habitations and substance
have been preserved in this time of desolation; especially to those, who have
been in imminent danger of being shares with others therein. As this calamity
is from God, so it is he who has directed it where to fall, and prescribed its
bounds and limits. You should therefore be sensible, that he has been your preserver;
and made this distinction between you and others If others ought to acknowledge
his providence in the calamity which has befallen them, certainly it is not
less incumbent on us to acknowledge it in our own preservation. Had God, who
commandeth the wind when and where to blow, given a different direction to it,
our habitations might have been consumed, while those of the present unhappy
sufferers were preserved. I mention this circumstance particularly, because
it is familiar and obvious; plainly showing, that it is God, and not man, who
has made this difference; and important truth, which might be evinced by other
considerations also, were there time and occasion for it.

Nor ought we to attribute our preservation to any supposed merit, or superior
goodness in ourselves; or the sufferings of our neighbors, to any greater guilt
or demerit in them. Our Savior seems to have designed a general caution against
such imaginations, in a passage which was alluded to above. When certain persons
told him of some Galileans, whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices,
expecting, probably, that he would have attributed this to the great wickedness
of those Galileans in comparison with other, his reply was – “Suppose ye that
these Galileans were sinners above all the Galileans, because they suffered
such things? I tell you, nay – or those eighteen, on whom the tower of Siloam
fell, and slew them; think ye that they were sinners above all men that dwelt
at Jerusalem? I tell you, nay: but except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.”
Our Savior’s meaning here is not, that those Galileans, and those Jews, were
not sinners; or that they did not justly suffer such things on account of their
sins. Neither of these things can be supposed. But the obvious design of this
remarkable passage is, to teach us that God, in his providential government
of the world, does not always single out the greatest sinner, to make them the
greatest sufferers in the sight of men; and, consequently, that we ought not
to conclude ourselves more righteous than others, merely because we at present
escape those judgments which befall others. God will finally give to every man
according to his deeds, in weight and measure, and exact proportion. But at
present he acts as a sovereign; I mean, in the outward dispensations of his
providence towards particular person; agreeably to the observations of Solomon,
mentioned in the former part of this discourse, that “all things come alike
to all; that there is one event to the righteous and the wicked; and that no
man knoweth either love or hatred from all that is before him.” A greater than
Solomon has confirmed these remarks on the conduct of divine providence. We
should therefore take heed, that we do not attribute to our own superior piety
or virtue, what we ought to ascribe solely to the sovereign pleasure of God,
and his distinguishing favor towards us. For to apply our Savior’s language
and reasoning above, to the melancholy occasion before us: suppose ye that those
who have lately suffered such things, were sinners above all that dwell in Boston?
I tell you, nay! At least, we have no reason to think them so, on this account.
Many who have escaped this disaster, and perhaps we ourselves, are as great,
or greater sinners; and except we repent, some “worse thing may come unto us.”

What shall we render unto the Lord for his distinguishing goodness to us in
this respect? It becomes us to render praise to him; for “whose offereth praise,
saith the Lord, glorifieth me.” We should also show our gratitude to God, by
devoting ourselves, and all we have, to his honor and service. His goodness
and forbearance lead us to repentance, while his righteous severity is exercised
towards others for the same general end. Us he draweth with the cords of love,
while he scourgeth others, not more guilty, with the rod of affliction. And
shall we despise his goodness, forbearance and long-suffering! If there be any
peculiar audaciousness, or presumption, in despising the chastening of the Lord;
there is certainly a peculiar baseness and disingenuity, in despising his goodness.
We and our substance, have been as it were plucked out of that fire, by which
other have suffered so much. Let us therefore take heed, lest we incur that
heavy censure, Amos Chap. IV. “I have overthrown some of you aas God overthrew
Sodom and Gomorrha; and Ye were as a fire-brand plucked out of the burning;
yet have ye not returned unto me, saith the Lord!”

Will it not particularly become us to show our gratitude to God for his distinguishing
mercy to us, by cheerfully imparting of our substance for the relief of our
indigent brethren? The government has already done something for their present
relief. But there being so many of these unhappy sufferers, they will doubtless
stand in need of farther succor and assistance, before they are in any method
of supporting themselves. And God forbid. That any of us who have escaped this
calamity, should be backward to distribute, or unwilling to communicate, as
there may be occasion, and we have ability! One reason, we may well suppose,
why God has spared our substance, is, that we might be in a capacity to relieve
and assist those, whom his holy providence has rendered objects of our charity.
It is partly for their sakes, not wholly for our own, that our substance has
been preserved. Nor can I indeed doubt, but that the people of the town will
be generally disposed to liberality on this occasion; especially when I reflect,
how largely and cheerfully they contributed a few months since, on a similar
occasion. 7

But it is time to draw a conclusion of this discourse. When God’s judgments
are abroad in the earth, it is then more especially incumbent upon the inhabitants
thereof to learn righteousness. If we do not regard the past, or present, there
may probably be other, and heavier ones, in store for us. At least it is certain,
that the wicked shall not finally escape the righteous judgment of God. “For
behold the day cometh that shall burn as a oven, and all the proud, yea, and
all that do wickedly, shall be as stubble; and the day that cometh shall burn
them up, saith the Lord of Hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor
branch. [Mal.4:1]” Such a fire as we have lately seen, especially in the night,
diffuses general terror and distress. What then will be the consternation, how
great the amazement, of a guilty world, when the Son of man shall be revealed
from heaven in flaming fire, taking vengeance on them that know not God, and
that obey not his gospel! The old world perished by water: but the heavens and
the earth that now are, are reserved unto fire, against the day of judgment,
and perdition of ungodly men. And even these lesser fires and conflagrations,
which strike us with so much awe, may naturally remind us of that general, and
far more awful one, which the prophets and apostles have foretold: when the
earth itself, with the works that are therein, shall be burnt up, and the elements
shall melt with fervent heat. – “Seeing then that all these things shall be dissolved,
what manner of person ought we to be, in all holy conversation and godliness?
Looking for, and hasting unto, the coming of the day of God!” – To the wicked
this will be a day of unutterable woe; but to them that fear his name, and serve
him, a day of triumph and exultation. Happy are they who diligently prepare
for it. But, alas! there are many, who will not be persuaded, that there is
such a day approaching; “scoffers, walking after their own lusts, and saying,
where is the promise of his coming? For since the fathers fell asleep, all things
continue as they were from the beginning.” And many of those who profess to
believe it, do not practically regard it, minding only earthly things: and such
as these will accordingly be overwhelmed with a sudden and remediless destruction.
For “As it was in the days of Noah, so shall it be also in the days of the son
of man. They did eat, they drank, they married wives, they were given in marriage,
untill the day that Noah entered into the ark: and the flood came, and [38]
destroyed them all. Likewise also as it was in the days of Lot; they did eat,
they drank, they bought, they sold, they planted, they builded: but they same
day that Lot went out of Sodom, it rained fire and brimstone from heaven; and
destroyed them all: even thus shall it be in the day when the Son of man is
revealed! [Luke 17:26-30]”

The End.

 


NOTES

[1] One of the greatest and most
terrible fires known, was that of London in the reign of Charles II A. D.
1666. Of which the reader may please to take the following account, extracted
from Dr. Smollett’s Complete History of England. “About this period, says
he, London was exposed to a terrible disaster from a conflagration which broke
out on the third day of September, in the house of a baker. The flames, augmented
by a strongly easterly wind, raged with surprising violence. They destroyed
six hundred streets, including eighty-nine churches, many hospitals and public
edifices, and thirteen thousand two hundred private houses. The ruins comprehended
four hundred and thirty-six acres of ground. The conflagration continued three
days, notwithstanding all the endeavors that could be used to stop its progress,
the king and duke assisting personally on horseback, from the first alarm
to its total cessation. At length, when all hope had vanished, and the wretched
inhabitants were overwhelmed with consternation and despair, it suddenly ceased,
and was entirely extinguished, after having reduced many thousand families
from affluence to misery, and the most flourishing city in Europe to a deplorable
heap of rubbish. Nevertheless the spirit of the people did not sink under
this calamity. London soon rose more beautiful from its ashes. The king —–
regulated the plans of the new streets, so as to render them more spacious
and convenient than those which had been burned. And he prohibited the use
of lath and timber, as materials for the construction of the houses. The narrowness
of the streets had not only subjected them to casualties of this nature, but
also prevented a free circulation of air, which being impregnated with animal
vapors, was apt to putrefy, and produce infectious distempers, insomuch that
London was scarce ever free from a contagion; whereas no such distemper has
appeared since the city was rebuilt.”

[2] Upwards of a hundred buildings
were then consumed.

[3] At Oliver’s dock; about 12
or 15 families being then burnt out.

[4] At the westerly part of the
town; when two rope-walks, with their apparatus, were destroyed; and other
effects to the value of some thousands of pounds.

[5] One large ship, and eight
or nine other vessels were burnt. One of which was loaded, or partially loaded,
with the king’s ordnance-stores, ready to sail. The South-battery on the water’s
side was also destroyed; when some barrels of powder taking fire, the explosion
was heard, and even the shock felt at many miles distance.

[6] In a vote which passed the
Great and General Court on the Saturday after the late fire, it is said to,
“appear on the best information that could in so short a time be obtained,
that there were consumed one hundred seventy-four dwelling houses and tenements,
and one hundred seventy-five warehouses, shops and other buildings, with a
great part of the furniture, besides large quantities of merchandize, and
stock and tools of many tradesmen; that the loss, upon a moderate computation,
cannot be less than one hundred thousand pounds sterling; and that the number
of families inhabiting the aforementioned houses, was at least two hundred
and twenty; three quarters of whom are by this misfortune rendered incapable
of subsisting themselves, and a great number of them reduced to extreme poverty,
and require immediate relief.” For which charitable purpose three thousand
pounds currency, being about two thousand two hundred and fifty pounds sterling,
was voted to be drawn out of the public treasury; and his Excellency the Governor
desired to send briefs throughout the province, recommending a general contribution
for the unhappy sufferers.

[7] About a thousand pounds lawful
money was collected in the several religious assemblies in the town, for the
relief of the sufferers by the late fire near Oliver’s dock: A large sum,
considering the impoverished and declining state of the town, and the greatness
of the public taxes. And though the disposition of the people be still the
same, and the present occasion much greater, and more urgent than the former;
yet it will naturally be remembered, that our ability is now less than it
was then. The more the town then gave away, the less it now has to give: and
may who, as we suppose, contributed largely on that occasion, are so far from
being able to do the like now, that they need relief themselves. It is to
be hoped therefore, that our friends and brethren who live in the country,
where their situation secures them so effectually against calamities of this
nature, will seriously consider the present distressed condition of the town;
and show their Christian benevolence on this occasion, agreeably to the Brief
which his Excellency the Governor has issued out. And we are the more encouraged
to expect this, by reflecting how cheerfully some of them made collections
for the poor amongst us, at the time of the last general small-pox in the
town.-“With such sacrifices God is well pleased.”